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Chapter 2. Overview of the Save the Memory Project

(2)Photo Cleaning and Drying

A photo related company that had been involved in previous volunteer activities to clean photos taught us how to properly do the job. In fact, even today, that company continues to post a description of the proper technique for cleaning photos on its website.

The surfaces of photos that were washed away by the tsunami and then buried in rubble were covered not only in debris but also bacteria. When the photos were moistened by filthy water, the bacteria thrived and ate away at the surface layers of the images. Therefore, before cleaning the photos, we found that it was better to begin with dry rather than wet photos. However, it was difficult to manage the photos in that manner in the chaotic disaster areas, so we received numerous photos that were still covered in dirty water and wet mud.
When we received dirtied photos that were still in an album, we first took apart the album and removed the photos. We then cleaned and dried the photos as a group while being careful not to mix them with other images.

The photos were basically cleaned by hand one at a time using water (low temperature, lukewarm water). Also, depending on the air temperature and room temperature of the work environment, we found that when the temperature at the work site was low and the water too cold, it affected the hand operations of those working on the photos, so we used a heater to preheat the water. Water was spread out on a large pallet, and a cleaning environment was created on work tables. The amount of time required to treat the large numbers of photos was quite lengthy, so measures were required to enable the workers to continue cleaning in a manner that did not become too burdensome. We connected long, ordinary meeting tables in a long single line, and created a work environment in which the cleaning operations could be performed while sitting in chairs. Cases or pallets filled with water were placed on the tables that formed this line.
The process of removing dirt and other contamination was performed in steps. While it depended on how much mud and other materials adhered to the photos, the photos could gradually be cleaned in three to four steps. The typical flow was as follows. “Rinse away the dirt and heavy contamination” → “Loosely wash away the dirt.” → “Carefully and meticulously remove dirt and such on a detailed level.” → “Lastly, rinse the photos a final time with clean water.” Photos that had already had the heavy contamination rinsed away could be sufficiently cleaned in three steps. If dried mud was adhered, a brush was used to loosely remove the dirt before the photos were submersed in water.

A huge amount of water was required to remove the large amounts of sludge. Large, deep plastic cases were used to perform the initial washing, and then when the photos reached the subsequent detailed cleaning and finish cleaning steps, shallow stainless steel or plastic pallets were used. However, because the water quickly became dirty, it was drawn into large plastic buckets or cases, and work was performed while the dirty water was replaced. These operations also required the use of buckets for drawing clean water and buckets to discard the dirty water in order to improve the efficiency of the operations.

The workers wore very thin disposable rubber gloves to protect their hands. The reason for using very thin gloves is that it was important to confirm the remaining status of contamination during the photo cleaning process by feeling around with your fingertips. Rubber gloves that are thick and made of a firm material are not suited for this type of work. Brushes were also used to remove large dirt and other contamination. However, this required meticulous attention to ensure that the brushes did not scratch the photos or images. When small contamination was carefully removed, the surfaces of the photos were gently rubbed in water with the interior part of the thumb to wash away the dirt. If sand like contamination had to be removed, a toothbrush was used to gently remove the sand in water. Also, while it depended on the contamination conditions, in some cases the photos were even submerged in water for a short amount of time to make it easier to remove contamination. The idea was to cause the sticky dirt to float, but in this case as well, workers had to be careful not to submerge the photos for too long a period of time. If a photo in which image corrosion has advanced is submerged in water for a long time, the image may dissolve.
Photos removed from albums were cleaned as a group so that they did not become scattered.

The above photo cleaning process was managed on site on a case-by-case basis depending on the extent of contamination, the storage condition, and the amount of time that had passed since the disaster. While managing the daily number of photos that had been cleaned and the number of photos that had been scanned, we endeavored to maintain a high level of operational quality and efficiency by accumulating experience and know-how.

Lastly, the cleaned photos were allowed to dry naturally by air. First, a paper towel was used to blot away moisture from the photos that had been finish rinsed with clean water. We used an industrial paper towel called a “Kim Towel”, which we also use in our own factories. This type of paper towel is highly water absorbent, very durable, and does not leave behind any fuzz or lint.
In order to efficiently air-dry the vast number of washed photos, we established a “photo air-drying space” where we used course mesh netting and clothespins, and fans to accelerate the drying process. We also made sure that the photos were fully dried rather than semi-dried in order to prevent any additional damage. It of course took a lot of time to air dry the photos, and the amount of time varied depending on the temperature and humidity. Therefore, one of the important control items was ensuring that we maintained a balance between the volume of continuously cleaned photos, the speed at which cleaned photos were generated, and the time it took to dry the photos.
Photos that were originally found in an album were cleaned as a group, and then we marked those photos with Post-it notes when they were sent to the drying process in order to clearly identify them and ensure that they did not become mixed in with other photos.

In order to process the huge amount of photos, photo cleaning volunteers were recruited from among Ricoh Group employees at the Natori, Tokyo, and Ebina Save the Memory Factories.
Volunteer activity was typically performed on a daily basis, and participation was solicited through in-house newsletters and posters that were hung among group companies. A web-based volunteer schedule management system was also developed in order to facilitate the smooth entry of volunteers into the activity, and with this system, employees were able to use the in-house intranet to schedule or cancel their volunteer time.
This volunteer activity included not only volunteers who worked near each Save the Memory Factory, but also volunteers who worked far away but came by car or train to participate. There were also numerous employees who took vacation time to participate on weekdays, as well as many employees who participated on successive days in nighttime volunteer activities after the end of the work day.
Ultimately, a total of 518 volunteers participated in the photo cleaning project, and including on-site activities, over 400,000 photos were cleaned and formed into a database of high quality image data.

Water is reserved for cleaning photos

Cold water is heated

Photo cleaning tray and draining board

Photo cleaning line

Brush for cleaning dirt off photos

Photos cleaning process

Photos cleaning process

Photos cleaning process

Recovered photos are set aside by water used for cleaning

Net and laundry pins are used to dry photos

Photos are hanged on the net to dry

Photos are being dried

Photos are hanged on the net to dry

Photos are being dried